CFL free agency officially opens on February 14, a day that will bring sweeping change to the league’s personnel landscape. Well over 150 players are slated to hit free agency, a number that includes nine 2016 divisional all-stars, the East Division’s Most Outstanding Player in Ernest Jackson, and the league’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in Derek Dennis.
The Bombers have gone on record indicating they intend to take a more modest approach to free agency this year than they have in the past.
“Our roster isn’t full of holes that we desperately need to fill,” general manager Kyle Walters told Ed Tait of BlueBombers.com last month. “That’s going to mean a completely different approach.”
Winnipeg has been very active in free agency in previous years, signing players by the bucket-full to try to to restock a depleted roster at an accelerated rate. Some of those signings, including Jamaal Westerman, Darvin Adams, Weston Dressler, and Andrew Harris, have worked out brilliantly. Others, including Nick Moore, Dominic Picard, Sam Hurl, and Keith Shologan, haven’t.
The list below is meant to reflect the Bombers’ free agent paradigm shift. None of the players listed below would be considered among the five best pending free agents in the league and many would not appear near the top of other team’s wish lists.
Still, the five players listed below would bring a vast amount of value to a Blue Bomber team that is looking to make the leap in 2017 from middling playoff squad to legitimate Grey Cup contender.
5. DB Jovon Johnson, Montreal Alouettes
I don’t expect to see the veteran defensive back in blue and gold in 2017, but Johnson would be a valuable acquisition for the club that employed him from 2008-2013.
His exit from the ‘Peg may have been ugly, but Johnson has proven with Ottawa (2014-2015) and Montreal (2016) that he can still be an effective cornerback and halfback in the CFL. The Bombers struggled to find consistency at halfback in 2016, starting Julian Posey, Kevin Fogg, Bruce Johnson, C.J. Roberts, and T.J. Heath at different points in the season, a primary reason the Bombers gave up a league-worst 322 passing yards per game.
Heath (acquired in the Drew Willy trade) appears to have locked up the weak-side halfback spot heading into next season. Why not let Johnson compete for the strong-side spot? The veteran is physical, tenacious, smart, and plays his best with a chip on his shoulder — one he’ll have if he’s allowed to walk from an eastern team twice in two seasons. Johnson would also not command a large salary, a key factor in making his signing a practical one.
The Bombers have only six players over the age of 30 under contract for 2017, two of whom (Justin Medlock and Chad Rempel) play exclusively on special teams. Bringing some veteran flavor to a young secondary could be a difference-maker in this upcoming season.
4. DL Drake Nevis, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
With Euclid Cummings set to hit free agency, the Bombers would be wise to add an American defensive tackle prior to training camp. Fortunately for Winnipeg, the market for interior defensive linemen is going to be flooded when free agency officially opens.
The three most-coveted current/pending free agent defensive tackles are national Cleyon Laing (free agent) and internationals Micah Johnson (Calgary) and Mic’hael Brooks (B.C.). Laing and Brooks are still looking for NFL opportunities, though their chances of earning NFL deals diminish with each passing day. Johnson, meanwhile, should sign for elite-level CFL dough.
Nevis makes sense for the Bombers because of his size (6’2, 301 pounds), quickness, and affordability. The former New Orleans Saint was a difference-maker for the Ticats in 2016, recording 29 tackles and five sacks in fourteen contests. Playing alongside Ted Laurent and John Chick may have helped Nevis’ production, but, given the market, it’s worth seeing if Nevis could continue his production next season in blue and gold.
3. RB Kienan Lafrance, Ottawa Redblacks
Andrew Harris proved he’s still an elite CFL running back in 2016, finishing fourth in yards from scrimmage (1,605) behind only Adarius Bowman (1,757), Jerome Messam (1,683), and Derel Walker (1,606). Still, Harris turns 30 in April and, with over 1,000 carries now to his name, it’s fair to question how much longer the Winnipeg native will be able to be withstand the punishment that comes with being a primary CFL running back.
Enter Lafrance. Lafrance, a fellow Winnipegger, was the surprise hero of the East Final this past November when he rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown to lead Ottawa to a 35-23 victory over Edmonton. The former Bison would give the Bombers a pair of solid Canadian ball carriers, allowing the team to preserve its ratio should either Harris or Lafrance succumb to injury or in-game fatigue.
3Down’s own Arash Madani has already reported that it is likely Lafrance will find his way home on February 14, meaning there’s a good chance we’ll see him in blue and gold in 2017.
— Arash Madani (@ArashMadani) February 1, 2017
2. LB Winston Venable, Montreal Alouettes
Venable, 29, is one of the CFL’s hard-hitters and the league’s second-leading tackler since 2015 with 191 take-downs in 35 games.
The former Chicago Bear is the only player on this list who I would consider the best available at his position heading into free agency. The Bombers were unsuccessful in contract negotiations with starting middle linebacker Khalil Bass, meaning there is need to add a starting-caliber player ahead of the upcoming regular season.
#Bombers pending FAs who will definitely hit free agency on Feb 14: LB Khalil Bass, DT Euclid Cummings, WR Rory Kohlert, OL Jeff Keeping.
— Darrin Bauming (@DarrinBauming) February 9, 2017
The Bombers have signed four rookie American receivers and defensive backs since January, but have yet to add a rookie linebacker. This may be an indication that the club will look to second-year men Kyle Knox and Nick Temple to fill Bass’ role internally. It may also indicate that the club will look to plug the hole via free agency.
In any case, Venable would solidify the Bombers’ linebacking corps alonside Ian Wild, both of whom have experience at middle and weak-side linebacker.
1. DL Jabar Westerman, B.C. Lions
The Bombers signed Keith Shologan on the first day of free agency last year to a whopping two-year, $350,000 contract to become the club’s starting nose tackle. The former Redblack never fully lived up to expectations in blue and gold, seeing his sack total drop from seven in 2015 to two in 2016.
Enter Westerman. Westerman has shown the flexibility play both defensive tackle and end, though he’s at his best on the interior of the line.
In a way, Westerman signing with Winnipeg would be five years in the making. Former Blue Bomber general manager Joe Mack traded up to the third spot in the 2012 CFL draft to select Westerman before B.C.’s Wally Buono beat him to the punch, trading for the second overall pick and using it to select the Eastern Michigan product. The player Mack ended up selecting third overall? Washington State offensive tackle Tyson Pencer.
As an added bonus, Jabar is the younger brother of stud national Blue Bomber pass rusher Jamaal Westerman. With Jamaal set to become a free agent following the 2017 season, locking up Jabar may help Kyle Walters sign the elder Westerman to an extension sooner rather than later.